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How to prevent frozen pipes and bursts

The £100,000 threat to your holiday home

Extreme winter weather in recent years has produced freezing temperatures for prolonged periods in the UK. Subsequently, thousands of vulnerable holiday and second homes suffered burst pipes and leaks – causing substantial water damage.

The cost and inconvenience caused by escape of water can be extensive. A small pipe fracture can release thousands of gallons of water if left unnoticed. The average insurance claim is an estimated £25,000 however, £100,000+ repair bills for water damage to the buildings, contents and drying out are not uncommon.

Holiday cottage and second home owners have a responsibility to prevent burst pipes and avoidable insurance claims. Burst pipe prevention is better than a cure. To avoid the prospect of returning to your holiday home and discovering water damage following a burst pipe or leak, take a few precautions to avoid being caught out by a big freeze…

The complete guide on how to prevent frozen pipes at holiday homes

Leave the heating on
One of the main causes of frozen pipes is switching the heating off completely when your holiday home is left empty. While this will save money in terms of fuel bills, it will expose your home to sub-zero winter temperatures and the expense of repairing damage should pipes burst.

Most modern heating systems that are common in holiday cottages can still operate with the mains water turned off. A qualified plumber should be able to give you advice about this.

Keeping the heating on will help prevent water still in the pipes from freezing, as water is continuously flowing. It is recommended to leave the heating permanently on (at least 13 degrees C), especially during cold snaps.

  • Electric storage heaters
    Some types of heating systems, such as storage heaters, do not provide continuous levels of heat that is required to prevent pipes from freezing. By only having the heating on a timer, one hour in the morning and evening, pipes can still freeze as the property is not heated through.
    If this is the case turning off the main stop cock and draining down the water tank and pipes is essential during frost.
  • Frost-stat/guards
    Using the “frost” setting (usually marked with a snowflake symbol) on your room thermostats may not keep pipes from freezing. If the frost-stat or room/radiator thermostats are set too low, then there is a risk that water pipes may already be frozen by the time the heating is triggered to come on.
  • Oil and LPG gas fuelled heating systems
    If your boiler runs on oil or LPG gas, ensure that you have sufficient supplies to heat your property for a lengthened period of time over winter. If your property does run out of oil, ensure that the water is turned off at the mains stopcock and the water system is drained down. This should help prevent water freezing in pipes and burst pipe damage to your property during cold snaps.
    Your heating oil supplier should also be able to tell you what additional precautions you should take during very cold weather to prevent oil gelling/freezing and blockages.

Drain down the heating/water system
If you are leaving your holiday home unoccupied during winter or if your heating isn’t capable of preventing frozen pipes, drain down and shut off the water/central heating system so that there is nothing in the pipes to freeze. Simply turning off the water is not sufficient as there is still a lot of water in the system and tanks, which can cause substantial damage if a burst pipe occurred. Drain the system down.

Get advice from a qualified plumber or heating engineer on how to drain down the water and central heating system to remove the threat of water damage entirely.

Lag pipes and insulate to provide extra protection against frost
Pipes in unheated areas, including lofts, attics, crawl spaces, basements or those fixed to the inside of external walls are most at risk from freezing. Pipes are often situated above insulation, leaving them exposed to freezing temperatures. Pipes should be lagged using insulating foam sleeving – the thinner the pipe the thicker the insulation should be.

The same applies to external pipes located in outbuildings that are likely freeze in cold spells.

Outside taps
Outside taps and associated pipe work are always a problem in freezing weather. A good solution is to have the facility to isolate the water supply to the outside tap with an internal shut-off valve.

Dripping taps
Replace the washers on dripping taps because if they freeze the pipe will block. Although letting a tap run, at a drip, in cold weather keeps the water flowing and can stop freezing and pressure building up.

Allow warm air to circulate unheated areas
During freezing temperatures leave your loft hatch door open to allow the warmer air from your holiday home to circulate up and around the water tank and water pipes.

It is also a good idea to leave cupboard doors under the kitchen sink and bathroom cabinets open so that warm air can circulate around pipes that are exposed to cold or fixed to outside walls.

Water tanks in lofts
Although all new water storage tanks must be insulated, older ones will benefit from a hot water jacket. Don’t place loft insulation directly under header tanks though, as this stops rising heat from below.

Trace heating
Lagging outside pipes on its own is not always enough. Fitting additional trace heating, where a low voltage electrical cable with frost thermostat is wrapped around a pipe under lagging, can help prevent water pipes freezing.

Service your boiler
Service your heating system/boiler annually, before winter, to prevent boiler breakdowns during cold spells and to ensure it’s running efficiently. Check that the thermostat is working correctly and consult with your heating engineer about any benefits of adding antifreeze to your heating system.

Prevent condensing boilers freezing and breaking down
If you have a condensing type central heating boiler take steps to prevent it breaking down in cold weather. In cold weather, the external condensate pipe that takes waste water from the back of the condensing boiler can freeze solid, shutting down the system. Lagging this pipe with water-proof and weather-proof insulation can prevent freezing.

Check your stopcock
Know where your stopcock is, as quickly turning off the water supply during a burst significantly reduces the damage caused by the escape of water. It is usually located somewhere on the ground floor. Test the stop tap regularly to ensure it is working (you can turn it off).

Install an approved device that shuts of your water if a burst pipe is detected, such as www.floodcheck.co.uk

Have an action plan
Be prepared: If you let out your holiday home, make sure you provide guests with information on how to turn off the water and who to contact in an emergency (name and number of your licensed plumber, housekeeper, agent, you). Display this in your guest information folder and in a prominent position so it’s easy to locate in the event of water gushing everywhere.

Also have a prominent notice displayed alongside your heating controls instructing guests not to turn off the heating or turn thermostats below 12°c in winter.

Ask someone to check on your holiday home
Ask a neighbour or housekeeper to inspect your empty holiday home daily during severe freezing temperatures. Hopefully, this will enable frozen or burst pipes to be detected as soon as possible. The early detection of any leaks minimises the cost of damage. Also, any boiler or heating failures due to the power tripping can be identified, which could prevent frozen pipes.

Check that you are insured
Although these precautions can help prevent burst pipes, there is still a risk that the unforeseen could happen and you could experience water damage. Check your holiday home insurance covers escape of water damage.

Ensure you comply with any winter heating warranties and unoccupancy exclusions outlined in your insurance policy wording. Failure to fulfill your insurance obligations could leave your holiday home uninsured for burst pipes.

If you need advice on what cover you need, contact one of our insurance experts.

Finally, file your insurance documents in a safe place so you can quickly locate them following a burst.

For more up to date information and facts on Burst Pipes please see our Infographic.


  • Jim |

    Some good tips here. We have a holiday home in France were it’s not unusual for temperatures to drop below freezing. When we leave we turn off the mains water and have antifreeze in our heating.

    • Philip |

      A good tip Jim. Some Northern parts of France are as cold as the UK in winter, which many absent owners don’t experience. Although we do have frozen/burst pipe claims in France, they are few compared to the UK. French owners seem to take more precautions to prevent burst pipes and drain down when leaving their properties unoccupied. Another tip I have read from one owner on a forum is putting salt in toilets to prevent freezing.

  • Dillon |

    I learn’t the hard way last winter when (name removed by admin) didn’t pay my burst pipe claim because we left our home empty whilst we were in Spain for 3 months and didn’t tell them. Had I taken the time to turn the stopcock off I expect the damage would have been a lot less and not the disaster zone we walked into.

    • Philip |

      Sorry to hear about the claim. Most main residence insurers will extend cover if you leave your home unoccupied for over 30 days whilst travelling for example, but you must inform them first. There are also specialist insurers who give 60-90 days unoccupancy cover. Whether insured or not, turning the stop cock off can reduce the claim from tens of thousands of pounds to a couple of thousand.

  • mytrustedplumber |

    An excellent compilation of tips here!
    I would probably also opt to completely drain the water/heating system just to make sure if I was to leave a property unoccupied for long periods of time (when the temperatures can drop below zero). And if in a rush shutting off the supplies via the stopcock is must really.
    Thanks for sharing these tips!

  • Adrian Fox |

    Draining your system is sometimes not enough, as water can remain in sections of pipe which do not drain and in the recesses of taps and valves. We have had frost damage to taps and valves making them useless and unusable the next year. You may need to use a high pressure air blower to ensure your system is truly empty. Many places in France can drop to minus 20C or more in an extreme winter. This has happened to us several times in the Pays de La Loire over the past ten years.

    • Philip |

      Thanks for your comment Adrian. Indeed many places in France drop to minus 20C or more in an extreme winter. Those who lock up and leave their properties over winter and don’t visit are usually unaware of this and return to substantial damage by burst pipes. Thanks for your tips on emptying a water system.

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